Parsing national identity is complex. However, attempting to grasp North Korean identity is even more so. Hampered by isolation and shrouded in government propaganda, understanding North Korea—nicknamed the “Hermit Kingdom”—requires multiple perspectives.
With state-appointed chaperones controlling which aspects visitors are allowed to see, let alone photograph, shooting an unconstructed look at the country is practically impossible. A new group show curated by Marc Prust, North Korean Perspectives, brings together the work of 11 different photographers to discuss this difficulty and attempt to get a closer look at North Korea.
North Korean Perspectives opens with Pierre Bessard’s black-and-white shots from “The Kim Personality Cult,” picturing a packed stadium at the May Day celebrations, as well as a look inside a North Korean factory. These images project pride and a strong emphasis on a focused work ethic.
Similarly, Phillipe Chancel’s Arirang shows the heavily orchestrated mass games from the section of the stadium where the nation’s leaders would sit. Chancel’s shots of the ornate, geometric configurations are matched with bold tiled visuals. These images could be compared to Busby Berkeley’s complicated Hollywood choreography, or bring to mind European Fascism of the 1930’s. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Ari Hatsuzawa’s “Neighbors, North of the 38 th Parallel” takes a different approach. Showing the Hermit Kingdom in the way we would see any other nation portrayed, Hatsuzawa contrasts our understanding of North Korea as a gloomy place with positive images of daily life. Street shots of smiling, stylish women, young people breaking into laughter on a carnival ride, commuters falling asleep on the bus, and boys pushing past exhaustion in the midst of a marathon combine to paint an uncharacteristically normal portrait of the North Korean people.
By superimposing images from paintings into a similar scene shot in present day North Korea, Alice Wielinga compares state-commissioned paintings with their reality in “A Life Between Propaganda and Reality.” The contrast between the government’s amplified glory and the austerity of the North Korean landscape is striking. The colorful paintings look almost comic next to Weilinga’s photographs, which are heavily dominated by brown and grey. After observing the color palate, taking a closer look at the disparity between the caricatured bliss on the faces in the paintings and the grim expressions of Weilinga’s photographed subjects is a telling indication of the inconsistencies that exist.
The exhibition takes a humorous turn with Joao Rocha’s “Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.” While these state-distributed press photos were initially intended to show Kim Jong Il in action, Rocha’s
Tumblr compilation of “Dear Leader” ditches overtones of political propaganda in favor of comedy.
The diversity in perspectives makes for a fascinating approach to the subject, prompting the viewer to consider the manner in which North Korea chooses to communicate their national identity. The contrast of our views, the reality of daily life, and the state’s utopian vision combine to create a compelling look at the Hermit Kingdom.
Editors’ Note: North Korean Perspectives was exhibited the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands from April 3 to August 30, 2015. It was also shown at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, Chicago from July 23-October 4, 2015.